A Walk in the Woods: Hiking in Donegal's forgotten forest
Tracks & Trails
As A Walk in the Woods hits Irish cinemas, Darragh Murphy takes a stroll of his own - in Donegal's underrated Ards Forest.
"You've got the Blue Trail, you’ve got the Red Trail, and you’ve got the Sean Trail."
So says Sean Mullen, our all-singing, all-knowing guide in the forests of north Donegal. Having guided generations of walkers along the seaboard, today the Derry man is especially keen to show off Ards Forest Park – a 1,200-acre mixture of forest and shoreline that is unique in Ireland in combining woods and sea.
While Glenveagh National Park gets most of the attention, Ards – just 10 miles to its north – is both more varied and less crowded.
As well as mixed woodlands and mudflats, it contains sandy beach, rocky shoreline, fenland, and a saltmarsh – plus four ringforts and three megalithic tombs.
If this was anywhere further south it would be famous, and packed. Visiting on a balmy Sunday, with the last of the autumnal sunshine beating down on the coastline, I find it almost empty of people, and feeling all the more wild for it.
True to his word, Sean takes us off-piste, beginning at the Capuchin Friary overlooking Sheephaven Bay. Here, the area is busiest. We spot six people pleasantly painting the scenery on the small beaches to the northeast of the Friary.
It’s a relaxing start to what promises to be a taxing walk.
Our hike coincides with the release of A Walk In The Woods (above), the film adaptation of Bill Bryson’s classic account of hiking the forbidding Appalachian Trail (AT). In the movie, Nick Nolte plays Stephen Katz, a slightly shambolic recovering alcoholic who joins the celebrated travel writer (played by Robert Redford) in an attempt to blow out the cobwebs and relive past glories - much to the bemusement of Bryson's family and friends.
Since 2014, the International AT has run through Donegal, much of which formed at the same time as the Appalachians on the Pangean supercontinent, 300 million years ago. So my hike is a sort of homage to Bill from across the pond, from one part-time hiking journalist to another.
Following the wooded shoreline past the Friary, we pass dark-brown sandy beaches overlooking Sheephaven Bay and join the Binngorm Trail at another beach.
Sean has christened it Lucky Shell Strand, although neither Coillte nor the Ordnance Survey have deigned to officially name it. We meet two more nameless beaches upon climbing over Binngorm Point. Both are beautifully sandy, sheltered – and completely empty, despite it being a balmy 17 degrees. Sheltered deep inside Sheephaven Bay, they could be the most lonesome collection of beaches in western Europe.
On this side of Ards, with the tide out, the Back Strand beckons southwest. We paddle up the wet sand before joining a wooden boardwalk over the fens to another unnamed beach and another surprise – a wooden wigwam.
The wigwam is a little odd, in that it contains two openings to the sky. It’s perfect on a day like today, but a little optimistic given Donegal’s high average rainfall.
One of our party, an American friend, asks us about a GAA game they caught a glimpse of earlier in the summer, and we try and find out whether it was gaelic football or hurling.
“It seemed about average,” our American friend replies. "But they were vicious; one guy had blood streaming down his face. And they didn’t even have any shoulder padding on.”
We ask whether the players were carrying sticks, as that would mean it was hurling. There is a pregnant pause as our friend’s jaw drops open.
“They give them sticks? They give them… sticks?”
It’s at this incongruous wigwam, after three hours walking the trail on a warm Sunday, that we first see other people in the actual forest park. God knows where the rest of them are – probably at yet another gloriously unknowable golden beach. Sean explains that Coillte’s €4 charge to exit the car park keeps most away. Which is a shame, given the glorious trees and brights colours that dot the hillsides.
After picnicking, we head inland past the empty Coillte carpark, and then southwest, up a 100-metre ascent. Even with a gravel path and perfect weather, it’s a bit of a slog and, for the first time, you feel a (slight) affinity with Bryson and Katz, who did this in even emptier terrain, for almost a thousand miles.
Also, our short ascent is rewarded by a look at Caiseal Lilly, the finest of the park’s ringforts, where oak, spruce, birch and bracken compete for the autumnal afternoon sunlight. Here are great views of the picturesque Muckish Mountain, the mountain that looks a different shape each time you view it.
From some locations it resembles a pig’s back, hence the name.
After a light-hearted recitation of The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost, Sean swings us through the forest onto the Heritage Trail, and then back to the Marine Trail overlooking the beaches, from whence we came.
Unlike the Appalachian Trail – which is a vast wilderness in a country which gives over about a quarter of its land to trees – parts of Ards Forest Park are unfortunately given over to tree-felling. Thankfully, however, there's also a fair bit of native woodland, including sessile oak, birch, ash and rowan, with a smattering of yew, hawthorn and elm.
There are also non-native broadleaf trees – chestnut, sycamore and beech – plus Sitka spruce, noble fir, pine, hemlock and some ageing larch. Some of these are slowly being choked by that terrible beauty, the rhododendron. Unfortunately there are no teams to cut it back here, unlike in Glenveagh and Killarney.
It’s a shame, because otherwise the park is unspoiled, almost too much so – it could do with a café in one of its old ruins.
Having finishing the Sean Trail, we fall gratefully into the waiting arms of the Ards Friary coffeedock. It may not be the Appalachian Trail, but it's certainly a decent Sunday workout.
Where to eat and stay
To round off the day, drive to the picturesque 17th-century village of Ramelton, the former county town. Take a room in the stately Ardeen House (ardeenhouse.com) overlooking Lough Swilly, and order some excellent seafood at The Bridge Bar (bridge-bar.com) on the River Leannan.
See also walktalkdonegal.com and walkinthewoodsmovie.com.